So, I ran into the Hess family yesterday at the Arts Festival and we were talking about a trip they plan to take next year, and we were talking about how long the plane ride is going to be. Now, who here has ever been on an airplane? Now, who here has ever nearly cried from fear on an airplane? So, I have a deep, deep mistrust of airplanes. First of all, I don’t understand the science. It’s a giant metal tube hurdling through the sky; it’s clearly too heavy to fly. But I also can’t stand the descent to your destination airport. Because you start to hit turbulence and feel the plane change altitude, but the pilot never comes on the intercom and tells you that your starting to descend to your destination airport until AFTER they’ve already scared the crap out of you. So, all the while, I’m just sitting there with clammy hands and sweaty pits, feeling like I’m about to fall thousands of feet to my death.
Isn’t it interesting, though, that the root of so many of your fears is doubt. Doubt in the technology of airplanes or doubt in the ability of our bodies to fight disease or doubt in the idea that the resurrection actually means anything. Our story this morning is about these very ideas: fear and doubt, especially as it relates to our faith and the hinge that is the risen Christ.
Now, this text comes on the heels of the resurrection of Jesus. And in John’s gospel, Mary Magdalene comes alone to the tomb, and Jesus appears to her individually. So, this particular text we're dealing with this morning takes place the evening of the same day the resurrection was revealed. “It was evening that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews…"
There’s something to be said about the fact that the disciples were meeting behind locked doors due to fear. I’m usually the one to lock up the house before bed and I have to admit — I do enjoy that responsibility. I just love the sound of a deadbolt locking. I feel like a safety officer: “I’ve secured the perimeter.” I wish I had someone to salute when I was done. And it’s great to have a safe place to rest your head at night, but I hesitate to believe that the reason they were hiding out was only because of their fear of the Jews who put Jesus to death.
Maybe above and beyond their fear of those who took their teacher away is the shame they feel from the fact that they couldn’t protect him. Maybe they don’t want to face their failure. And so, if they lock themselves behind closed doors, all that shame and failure won’t be able to bother them. And my question is: Aren’t we exactly the same way? We’re all kind of like houses. When others come around, what we present is a nice, clean, polished home that has everything together, but laying around in the attic and stuffed away in the closets are remnants of our shame and our failure and our baggage.
And what this text communicates to us, right out of the gate, is that no matter how hard we try and no matter how badly we want to, we can’t keep Jesus out. At some point, Jesus is going to come into your life and throw light onto all your shame and failure and baggage precisely because it’s in recognizing shame as shame and failure as failure that it’s conquered. And when Jesus comes and saves us from that shame and failure, we find peace. And this is exactly what Jesus offers his disciples.
“‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’” Now, this is an extremely interesting scene, particularly because Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit onto the disciples. And if you know your bible, you know that there’s an entire chapter in the book of Acts dedicated to the receiving of the Holy Spirit, and we celebrate this on the Sunday known as “Pentecost.” So, what’s going on here that this scene is so different?
Well, the most straightforward explanation is that John is interpreting the events of Jesus’ resurrection and the early church a bit different than the other three gospel authors. So, for Matthew, Mark, and Luke, there are three separate events: 1) Jesus’ resurrection, 2) receiving of the Holy Spirit, and 3) Parousia. However, for John, these three happenings are all subsumed under this single event. In other words, the second coming of Christ is not something that’s still to come in the future; for John, the resurrection is the second coming and upon his coming he breathes the Holy Spirit on the disciples.
Now, the reason for John interpreting the events this way is likely because John’s gospel was written later than the others, and John is having to deal with things the other authors didn’t have to. The other gospel authors probably believed that Jesus was still going to come back any day, but by the time John is writing, Jesus still hasn’t come back and people are starting to rethink how they should be understanding that expectation.
In any case, coming back to our particular text, this is when we’re introduced to Thomas. Now, Thomas’s name has popped up before in the gospels but this is the first time we’re seeing a scene like this. “The other disciples told him, ‘we have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.'"
You know, Thomas gets a bad rap in the Bible. We call him “doubting Thomas” and shame him for not believing the words of the disciples, but when we think about it, that’s really unfair. I mean, we talked last week about how the disciples openly dismissed the proclamation of the women at the tomb, and nobody ever talks about them being “doubters”.
There’s a certain stigma surrounding doubt in the church. We tend to judge and shame and ostracize people who doubt. But think about what I said last week — it wasn’t the atheists who called for Jesus’ death. It wasn’t the pagans or non-Jews who called for his death. No, Jesus fell victim to the hands of those who show up to church every week and serve on committees and idolize the way things are instead of looking forward to the way things could be. We need to destigmatize doubt because I guarantee there are a lot of “doubters” out there who are better Christians than those of us who are faithfully committed to the church.
I went through a season of doubt a few years back. When I was in seminary, there was a year or so that I was just in a deep, deep pit of depression. It was about the time that the Syrian refugee crisis hit its peak and I was seeing pictures of dead kids washing up on beaches and families being killed in Aleppo from bombings, and all the while I was going to class and learning things like Eberhard Jüngel’s post-Barthian Trinitarian thought. Anyone here know what those words mean? Exactly — no. And I just couldn’t help but think, like “People are dying. Refugees are dying. And I’m doing absolutely nothing about it but what’s even worse is that God’s doing absolutely nothing about it.” And at that moment, I was ready to become an atheist. Because I was tired of having to figure out how to fit the square peg of faith into the round hole of human suffering.
But then I had this moment. I don’t know if you would call it an epiphany or a mystical experience or what, but I was in my apartment one day and I remember these words flashed before my mind: “Faith happens to you.” Now, as far as I know I had not experienced these words or this idea of faith. But when it happened, it’s like a switch flipped in my mind and I suddenly began to understand that faith is something that’s never mine to begin with. Faith is a gift; faith is something that comes to me in an event that forces me out of myself and toward Jesus.
So, if you’ve ever struggled with doubt; if you’ve ever felt like God was a mean kid sitting on an anthill with a magnifying glass; I have two things to say to you: 1) you’re not alone, and 2) faith isn’t something that belongs to you in the first place. Rather, it’s God’s gift and loan to you in this moment; in this event in which you’re encountering Jesus anew. The opposite of faith isn’t doubt; it’s certainty. From a pastoral perspective, I’m much more concerned about the people who are completely self-assured of their faith than any of those who have doubts, because if you never have doubts then you’re just not paying attention.
Thomas had doubts and at least he owned up to them. And then the moment comes when his doubts are displaces: “a week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘my Lord and my God!’”
At this point, I have to imagine Thomas is feeling the same shame the disciples felt last week when they doubted the testimony of the women and came to find out it was all true. But notice how the risen Christ responds to Thomas. He doesn’t berate him for doubting. He doesn’t judge him or force him out of the community. He treats him with compassion and love and understanding.
I want you all to look at the picture on the front of your bulletin this morning. This is a piece entitled “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” by Caravaggio. It was painted in 1601. And there’s a lot in this painting that’s absolutely beautiful and wonderful but there’s one particular detail I want to draw your attention to, and that is this hand right here. This is Jesus’ hand, guiding Thomas’s finger into his wound. And if that’s not the most beautiful, wonderful depiction of God’s relation to the doubter, then I don’t know what is. Because it shows us that God continues to guide us, even in our doubt. It shows us that God loves us even if we’re struggling to believe in him.
At the end of our passage, Jesus blesses both those who believe because of some sign or wonder, AND those who don’t need any convincing. The whole world belongs to God and there’s nothing we can lack or fail to believe that could change that. So, next time you find yourself in a place of doubt, or someone you love in a place of doubt, just remember: they may be exactly where they’re supposed to be, just waiting for the next time Jesus shows up and guides them to belief.